Robots Want Your Job

Book review

rise of the robots

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015)

Until recently it was an article of faith among economists that even as technology destroyed jobs in some sectors, it created new ones in other sectors. Is this belief still true?

Emphatically no, say Martin Ford, author of the best-selling “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” Ford is a software engineer with decades of experience in computer design and in following technology developments. Robots and AI (artificial intelligence), he says, are moving up the job ladder from production workers to professionals.

Data analysis, medical diagnostics, language translation, news article and business report writing, legal research, scientific investigation, engineering and design, financial trading and even music composition are among the seemingly human-centric jobs that are being tackled by machines. And the capabilities of AI are continually accelerating.

The upshot is while jobs are being destroyed, a lot of the new jobs are now those that are too low-paid to bother automating (not yet, anyway). And the competition for the remaining professional jobs is fierce and going to get fiercer. The political nostrum of giving displaced workers more education and training is a strategy with diminishing returns.

This might be okay if efficiency gains due to technology were driving the cost of living down, but that’s not the case. Essentials like housing, insurance, health care and education are rising instead. Plus if you have no job and no alternative income, lower prices are not much of a consolation.

Ford counters the usual explanations of the long-term trends of stagnant wages, underemployment and increased economic inequality, such as globalization, financialization and conservative politics. His case is that automation is the prime mover. Continue Reading

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Big Brother Is Here

Book reviews

Snowden

Snowden (2015)

If you are looking for a brief and easy-to-read intro to the controversies surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, Ted Rall’s “Snowden” is an excellent choice. Sort of a Cliff’s Notes version with cartoon illustrations.

Rall is a widely published political cartoonist who has several other books to his credit. The only other one I’ve read is last year’s “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome Your As Honored Guests,” about Rall’s adventures as an unembedded journalist in the endless U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was funny, enlightening and provocative all at the same time.

But don’t expect much humor in “Snowden.” Rall treats the topic more seriously, perhaps because our role in Afghanistan is more tragically absurd than our government’s wholesale violation of constitutional rights.

Snowden, in case you don’t follow the news much, is a young guy in his early thirties who perpetrated the most massive leak of secret government documents in the entire history of the world. He is currently stuck in Russia, where he landed en route to hoped-for asylum in Ecuador, and is reportedly trying to negotiate a return to the U.S. that doesn’t involve life in prison.

Getting stuck in Russia wasn’t his only mistake. Snowden and his collaborators in the media, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, calculated that dribbling out the secrets a little at a time would be the best way to keep the story alive and thus the public’s attention. Instead the effect has been, ho hum, that’s old news now.

Which is unfortunate, because many people have the impression that the leaks only involved the government’s indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata and user information from social media. And think that somehow the government and social media companies have reformed their ways as a result of the leaks.

The situation is worse than that. Continue Reading

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